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College Motivation and Preparation of Culturally Engaged Native American Youth


Abstract. Access to higher education can help tribal communities maintain political sovereignty, protect traditional knowledge and languages, and help close economic and social gaps (Adelman, et al., 2013, Brayboy, et al., 2012). Statistics indicate that too few Native Americans participate in post-secondary institutions and considerable research has gone into exploring this challenge (Barnhardt, 1994, Bosse, et al., 2011, Guillory, et al., 2008, Lee, et al., 2010, Pavel, 1999). Native American communities have implemented strategies to support their students; including academic support, traditional teachings and providing safe spaces with positive role models during non-school hours. Although programs vary in primary purpose for working with youth, they are commonly grounded in a cultural enrichment approach that honors Native American knowledge, tradition, history, and pedagogy. Using a combination of Brayboy’s (2006) Tribal Critical Race Theory and Huffman’s (2001) Transculturation Theory, this study examined the pre-college experiences of Native American youth who have participated in a cultural enrichment program. This study sought to better understand and address barriers limiting access to higher education.

During individual interviews, youth articulated many issues that impacted their pre-college experiences. Some issues were rooted in the schools themselves, including: problematic curriculum, misrepresentation and stereotypes, and persistently negative interactions with administration and staff. Given the opportunity to expound on all of the experiences that affected students’ attitudes toward and preparation for post-secondary education, youth also expressed challenges outside of school. For example, students talked about how the impact of reservation, community and home life and the complexity of Native identity influence their pre-college experiences and attitudes.

Findings indicated that students engaged in cultural enrichment programs shared a critical lens through which they evaluated their pre-college experiences. Findings also indicated that although students were generally motivated to pursue opportunities in higher education, many were left with inadequate information and guidance about college preparation and the application process. This study presents the needs and challenges of pre-college Native American students in their own voice and seeks to provide insight on creating culturally appropriate, meaningful college preparation for those working with Native youth.

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